Vitamin A Orange Maize to Nourish Zimbabwe
By Masimba Kanyepi
Vitamin A orange maize has been gaining ground in recent years, with its high yield potential, drought tolerance, twin cobbing trait, attractive orange-yellow grain colour and sweet aroma both as green mealies and in the traditional sadza and most importantly, for its naturally high levels of Pro-vitamin A, which makes it a good source of Vitamin A. Several varieties are now available on the market, promising yields of up to 12 tonnes per hectare. Poultry farmers are also taking a keen interest especially due to the importance of this in egg production.
According to the Ministry of Health In Zimbabwe and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), one in every three children suffers from Vitamin A deficiency (as much as 35 %) and chronic malnutrition, which contributes to 12 000 deaths each year; while 58% of pre-school children and 47% of pregnant woman suffer from iron deficiency and anemia. Malnutrition is most prevalent in Zimbabwe’s rural areas, which are home to over 70 percent of the country’s entire population (about 13 million). Lack of nutrients, especially in childhood, has devastating, even lethal consequences and the World Health Organisation estimates that every year between 250 000 – 500,000 children go blind as a result of a lack of vitamin A in their diets. Health experts also say vitamin A deficiency also weakens their immune system and half of these children die within a year of losing their eyesight. Iron deficiency on the other hand, reduces the physical and cognitive development in children and has contributed up to 20% of all maternal deaths during childbirth.
Dietary sources of vitamin A include green vegetables, fruits, and some animal products, but these are very expensive or inaccessible to the bigger population of the country. The diets of most rural households are dominated by staple crops such as rice, maize, and wheat, which are the primary sources of calories for hundreds of millions of people in Zimbabwe and across the world. While these crops are excellent sources of energy, they lack some essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, including iron, zinc, iodine, and vitamin A. This realisation has led to global investments in biofortification, which is a natural method of increasing the micronutrient content of the edible parts of crops through conventional breeding without compromising on yield and other farmer desired crop traits. The global biofortification efforts led by Harvest Plus has seen the development of Vitamin A Maize, Vitamin A sweet Potatoes, Vitamin A cassava, Iron beans, Iron Pearl millet, Zinc wheat, Zinc rice and more recently zinc maize
Zimbabwe has adopted a bio-fortification policy to help improve the country’s food and nutrition security. The Government, through Department of Research and Specialist Services (DR&SS) has released four vitamin A maize fortified varieties (ZS242, ZS244, ZS246, and ZS248), and one iron bean variety (NUA45). Orange Pro-vitamin A maize varieties have been conventionally bred by CIMMYT in collaboration with the DR&SS, with support from Harvest Plus to provide higher levels of Pro-vitamin A carotenoids, a naturally occurring plant pigment also found in many orange foods like carrots, butternuts, and pumpkins, that the human body then transforms into vitamin A.Harvest Plus, FAO, the Livelihood and Food Security Program (LFSP), Ministry of Health and Child Care, Ministry of Lands, Agriculture and Rural Resettlement (MLA&RR) and Primeseedco are working together to encourage the adoption and use of the orange maize.
Image provided by Julie Havercroft